Last month, I took my 13-year-old daughter and her twin friends to a Justin Bieber concert. I wasn’t going to go, but at the last minute, I remembered how much fun I’d had the first time we went, and my girlfriend and I got tickets.
A Bieber concert is as much for the moms as the girls. For one night, our daughters’ eye rolling and self-doubt turn into screaming and exhilaration. We are reminded of those earlier days of mothering when the sight of a swing set in the distance could induce squeals of delight in our toddler daughters. And we are also reminded of our earlier selves – the girls we were who had one ear hooked to the radio and a secret crush upon our hearts.
As I had been the first time, I danced until I was drenched in sweat. I sang along. I even spotted the bus carrying him away from the concert and yelled to the girls to get their cell phones out for one last Instagram moment.
My girlfriend, who is an editor, journalist, and photographer, caught a picture of Bieber that my daughter fell in love with. She tweeted it. She used it as the wallpaper on her phone. The night was full of joy and laughter.
And then came the hate. After I posted about the concert on Facebook, several male friends of mine made disparaging comments. “America worships trash,” said one. “This is not music,” said another. The reactions got me thinking: What’s going on here? Is there something deeper?
So I went to my bookshelf and I came across this from the French feminist psychoanalyst, Luce Irigaray: “[M]ost of the time women only make contact with each other in the context of discussions concerning their children, and mothers and daughters only ever come together, in our cultures, once they’ve passed the entrance test for the mother’s clan.” (Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference)
I studied Irigaray in grad school and I remembered that what she was saying was very different from most American feminists. Whereas American women in the ’90s were mostly concerned with equality and access, Irigaray was talking about the structures of desire beneath those social conditions.
I went back to my favorite essay of hers, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” and these words jumped at me: “When you say I love you – staying right here, close to you, close to me – you’re saying I love myself. You don’t need to wait for it to be given back; neither do I. We don’t owe each other anything. That ‘I love you’ is neither gift nor debt.” (This Sex Which Is Not One)
I had seen the face of this kind of love on my daughter and her friends’ faces in the back seat on the way to the concert as they sang, “Baby, baby, baby, oh….” And I had watched the bodies of the mothers and daughters in the audience dancing to this kind of love during the concert as Bieber sang, “All around the world, people want to be loved.”
College football season started recently, and I live in a big college football town. On game day, people decorate their cars, wear team colors to work, and watch the game like religion. I was thinking about the unequivocal acceptance of football fan fanaticism and comparing it to the skepticism and downright disdain young girls get for liking Bieber, and then it occurred to me: Power.
Football is okay because it is a male sport. Fathers play with their sons. It gets passed down. If women participate, they do so not as women but like the men: knowing stats, trading predictions, analyzing games.
There is no place for the reverse in our culture. It is taboo for young boys to feel jubilant desire and sing like banshees.
And as girls move from tweens to young women, their exuberance gets crushed, as well. When my daughter shrugs her shoulders and says “Whatever,” she is responding to the enforcement of indifference that Irigaray describes: “Indifferent one, keep still. When you stir, you disturb their order. You upset everything. You break the circle of their habits, the circularity of their exchanges, their knowledge, their desire. Their world.”
There is nothing less indifferent than a stadium full of adolescent girls at a Bieber concert. And nothing more disheartening than the vacant look of a teenager pretending not to care at a high school party.
Here on the cusp of this difference, part of me wants to shield my daughter, protect her, hide her away. But I wasn’t raised that way. And I’m not raising my daughter that way.
Instead, I opt for openness.
The other night at dinner with my daughter and mother and partner, my daughter said to us, “Did you know there’s drinking at the ninth grade parties? That’s only a year away.”
Her shoulders slumped. She waited.
My mom and I looked at each other across the table. I remembered how she had handled this with me and my sister when we were teens. And I knew that her openness with us had led me to be more responsible as a result. So I said to my daughter what my mother had said to me: “Call me – any time – no matter what. Whenever you want to leave a party. Whenever you don’t feel safe. Whenever you’ve had something to drink. Whenever.”
Even as I write this, I hear the voices of criticism in my head. Bad Mother. Are you telling her it’s okay to drink? Why aren’t you telling her not to do it?
And then Irigaray speaks again: “If you/I hesitate to speak, isn’t it because we are afraid of not speaking well? But what is ‘well’ or ‘badly?’ With what are we conforming when we speak ‘well?’ What hierarchy, what subordination lurks there, waiting to break our resistance?”
My mother and I saw it as a sign of my daughter’s strength to admit her fear. And if we responded to that fear with shame, she might shut down and end up doing the exact things she fears.
I don’t want to be my daughter’s best friend. I don’t even need to be her friend. As adolescence rises in our house, I find myself being stricter. More rules. More chores. More responsibility. More trust. And with this comes the need to combat silence.
Irigaray writes, “We must learn to speak to each other so we can embrace from afar.” I love this. I think it pertains to my vision of myself as mother, but even more, it informs how I see myself as a writer.
I choose speech over silence.
I choose trust over fear.
I choose growth over security.
I choose love over prediction.
It has been 20 years since I took the graduate seminar on Gender and Sexuality in which I first read Irigaray. When I read her work, I could feel it. It gave me a vision of the kind of writer I wanted to be. And it informed the stepmother and mother I would become.
You might even say I had fallen in love with the words. You might even say they thrilled me. You might even say they were a mirror for me of what was to come.
Go ahead. Say it. Let your lips speak together of your desire – for yourself as a mother, for yourself as a writer. And in response, I will sing back to you the words that hooked me until I was undone and began to find my own voice, my own power:
“Be what you have been becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be.”
In the tradition of Luce Irigaray’s essay, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” I invite you to submit a short story or creative non-fiction essay of 800-1200 words on the theme of claiming your voice and your desire as a mother and as a writer. Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by September 30th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 4” in the subject line, include a brief bio and place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.